CHAPTER 31: (NON)COMMUNICATIONS IN THE USSR

Here is Rod coming out of    the Telex room of the Intourist Hotel in Moscow
Here is Rod coming out of the Telex room of the Intourist Hotel in Moscow

I pride myself in the fact that I have written the shortest chapter in the history of literary world: Chapter 31 of “Ghost Love” contains just three sentences these amounting to a miserly 49 words. The chapter is about Peter phoning Tonya twice from the UK, after which his calls stopped. But though the chapter is short every time I read it I’m reminded of how difficult communicating was back in the early 1990s.

We managed to survive without a mobile phone, e-mail and the internet. And if communicating was a problem in the West, inside the USSR it was nigh-on impossible. If you wanted to phone another country, you had to book your call one week in advance (and you didn’t know if the person you wanted to speak to would be at home). You also had to book the length of the call – say, five minutes, which would cost you 5 roubles per minute. If you compared this with my student allowance of 45 roubles per month … you know what I mean. To add to the problem of cost, there was this inconvenience of the operator listening to the whole of your conversation… apparently they had to do this, I am not sure why but I can guess.

Of course businessmen could use the Telex (a text messaging service linking up teleprinters around the world) to contact the outside world. Most of the larger hotels had a Telex facility. Here’s a picture of Rod coming out of the Telex room at the Intourist hotel (don’t bother trying to find the hotel now: it was built in 1970 and demolished in 2002. Such a shame: it had a great pizza restaurant which my children loved!).

A fax message Rod sent me on 19th December 1990 - a fax Christmas card! x
A fax message Rod sent me on 19th December 1990 – a fax Christmas card! x

And then, in 1990, the fax came!!! Yay! I remember looking at the fax machine in Alphagraphics where I worked, stroking it and thinking, this is the best human invention ever! My loved one is on the other line, sending me this letter, and I am receiving it here and now, in real time from three thousand miles away!

After that the improvements came thick and fast. When Rod and I moved into our first apartment in Moscow, the district hadn’t been connected to the ‘phone network so we became one of the first users of mobile phones in Russia. ‘Mobile’ is perhaps too generous. It was enormous and weighed a tonne. It was also temperamental. Still, it worked … sometimes.

To summarise, back in the 1990s it was very difficult to keep in touch. Things are so much easier today … aren’t they? For those of you who are trying to dial Moscow, the powers-that-be have made a change in the code system, so now Moscow has two codes (depending on the district you’re calling): 007 495 and 007 499. A great way to confuse the life out of everybody. Who said communication in the 21st Century was easy?

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